Farmers, going organic for health, find it yields wealth

Sunday News
John Rutter
June 9, 1996

Organic farmers don't necessarily munch granola or march behind horse-drawn plows.

On a summer-like afternoon last week, Delmar Stoltzfoos was working on a bright-orange Popsicle as he climbed aboard his all-terrain vehicle. He putt-putted down a dirt lane that split emerald-green fields. He carefully looked both ways before crossing the blacktop road that bordered the pasture.

Leaving his machine near the fence, he walked into the field and began steering the Holsteins toward the barn. “C'mon, c'mon, c'mon,” he crooned. “Hiya, hiya...”

Soon it would be time for the 4 o'clock milking.

Then the calves would be looking for their meal of raw milk. “I always feed the calves morning and evening,” Delmar said. “That's my regular chore.”

There were also portable wire fences to move, turkeys to ride herd on and who knew what else. No end of work. Not that Delmar was too busy to fill a visitor in on his pet rabbits or cuddle a new-born kitten.

Delmar is 10.

On a bucolic eastern edge of Lancaster County, his father is indoctrinating him and his seven siblings in the ways of organic farming.

Roman Stoltzfoos is a burly, serious man with a mission. And a mission statement. One of the goals on his computerized list is “To provide healthy foods and develop relationships with consumers that help them appreciate the Creator's plan for His Creation.”

Stoltzfoos does not feed his livestock drugs or hormones. He has used no chemical fertilizers or pesticides since 1987. He switched to organics for several reasons.

Conventional techniques were not controlling problems with pests, he said. He wanted a safer environment to raise his kids. And he wanted to be a better steward of the land.

So he talked to the experts. He read up on organic farming. Then he made the leap.

Spring Wood Farm found a lucrative niche.

Organically grown food fetches a higher market price.

Because he practices “grass farming” – Stoltzfoos frequently moves his cows to different sections of the paddock so they don't overgraze any one part – he depends less on processed feed. He saves $7,000 a year by not using pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Some of the savings are offset by other expenses, such as composting. And his grass-fed cows give about 10 percent less milk.

But the animals are also healthier, he said, and veterinary bills are smaller. Overall costs are down 20 to 30 percent, he added.

“As far as net profit goes, we're definitely ahead.”

Stoltzfoos, a Mennonite, is not one to seek the spotlight. But many recognize his 240-acre dairy and poultry operation as a model farm. He has become an unofficial ambassador for the organic movement.

Throughout the year, he said, “I get an awful lot of phone calls.” Many are from conventional farmers curious about organics.

He admits that the tide is slow to turn. But he is cautiously optimistic about the trend. “At least they're asking questions,” he said.

Though Lancaster County is a top farm county in the United States, organic agriculture is still largely an underground movement here.

Private organizations like the Organic Crop & Improvement Association have certified 25 to 30 organic farmers throughout the county, Stoltzfoos said. One hundred more practice the techniques without official recognition.

There are a number of reasons why only a tiny fraction of the county's 5,030 farms are certified organic.

Nationwide, the market for organic food more than doubled between 1990 and 1995 to $2.8 billion, according to Ken Mergentime, of the Natural Foods Merchandiser in Boulder, Colo. But that market is centered in big cities, such as Philadelphia and New York.

Local demand remains low, perhaps because of the pervading perception that Amish and Mennonites already farm organically. (Most do not, though Stoltzfoos says many young Amish farmers are interested in organics.)

Conventional farmers are geared for maximum production. But yields may fall off during the transition to organic farming. Practitioners say it takes several years to build a healthy soil base and learn more intensive management techniques.

Too, the chemical/industrial farming revolution that followed World War II has become entrenched. Farmers cannot find much information on organics through conventional channels, Stoltzfoos said.

“You get very little support from your extension services and land grant universities.”

Even so, the local organics network is firmly rooted.

The county has at least three community-supported agriculture co-ops that distribute organic produce to their members.

Last year, the Organic Crop & Improvement Association started a local chapter, a dairy co-op.

Over the past six years, the Community Natural Foods store in New Holland has expanded its selection to include a wide array of fruits and vegetables, said manager Lucy Miller.

One of the most stubborn myths about organic farming – that it's a backyard hippie enterprise with limited economic potential – is being plowed under.

“Traditional aggie types have kind of evolved from seeing it as nutso stuff,” said David Brubaker, of the PennAg Industries Association in Ephrata. “It's really entering the mainstream.”

Many conventional farmers use earth-friendly techniques, such as crop rotation, that organic farmers depend on. But the latter take that benevolent attitude a step farther.

“The main thing with organic farming is the improvement of the land,” said Mergentime. That's 180 degrees from the traditional “conquering nature” approach, which depletes the soil and leaves it increasingly dependent on chemical infusions, he said.

According to federal criteria, organic farms must be free of synthetic or chemical fertilizers and pesticides for three years.

Stoltzfoos and others say concerns about health, ethics and economics nudged them away from conventional farming.

Chris Petersheim used to farm part time. He also worked at a greenhouse that used a lot of chemicals. He believes the chemicals made him sick. He switched to organic farming more than 15 years ago.

Petersheim saw beneficial insects increase after he stopped using pesticides, he said. To control aphids, he brought in some ladybugs. To build the soil, he started a compost pile.

With four other growers, he sends lettuce, kale, collards, spinach, broccoli and other vegetables to local food co-ops and stores and also to outlets in Philadelphia and New York.

“We saw that it can work,” said the Paradise farmer, who plows with horse and harrow.

In Holtwood, Steve and Cheri Groff are gradually cultivating organic practices.

“I have a real passion for keeping the soil in place and not letting it wind up in the Conestoga,” explained Groff, who farms 175 acres with his father. Over the winter, they hold the soil with a cover crop such as hairy vetch, a legume that transfers nitrogen from the air to the soil. That cuts the need for spring applications of nitrogen fertilizer, he said.

They've also cut back on pesticides and now put down about $13 worth an acre each year. Local farmers typically spend twice that, Groff said.

“I'm using the least amount of pesticides I can get away with. I might be there someday.”

Stoltzfoos quit conventional farming for a practical reason.

Herbicides failed to clear up a serious weed infestation, he said. “We went to cultivating” and found that the key was “to religiously cultivate and rotate crops.”

Today, he raises corn, soybeans, alfalfa, oats and other grains. He grows sweet corn for the table alongside feed corn for the livestock.

He does not worry about chemical spills, which he said can be a big liability, or about polluting the water. Because he does not give antibiotics to his cows, he doesn't have to worry about contaminating a tanker load of milk, which he said can cost $5,000 to replace.

Most important, he added, “An organic farm is more child-friendly.”

At the farm last week, Stoltzfoos cranked up a small skid loader and plunged into a familiar task – loading manure. Swallows darted in and out of the weathered red barn as he quickly emptied it of the pungent stuff.

Sixteen-year-old Dwight did the hauling from behind the wheel of a White “Field Boss” tractor, powering out of the barn yard and up the hill behind the turkey houses, where rows of compost cooked in the sun.

The task took most of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Stoltzfoos had dispatched other kids to other chores. He directed the operation and kept in touch with his wife, Lucy, via a walkie-talkie on his belt.

Organic farming may not require any more sweat than conventional farming. But it does not mean going back to the way grandfather did things before chemicals, either.

“Your management skills have to be better,” said Organic Crop & Improvement Association president Tom Beddard. “You don't have any quick fixes.”

Practitioners equate healthy soil with plants that are more resistant to drought, pests and disease. But strengthening the soil also takes time. At first, Petersheim said, the bad micro-organisms outweigh the good.

For two years after Petersheim switched to organics, his farm was less productive, he said. The rocky transition discourages some farmers.

But those who stick it out become lifelong converts, Beddard said.

Most farmers want to be in step with their land, said Stoltzfoos, before climbing back on his tractor.

“We believe what we're doing will leave the land in better shape than it was.”